Saturday, August 05, 2006

Is This Legible?

You are reading this on a screen, most likely on the CRT or LCD display of your primary computer, possibly on the small screen of your PDA, or even, at a stretch, on your smart phone.* Do you ever think about the layers of technology involved in getting this post from its origins on my PDA screen onto your screen? The last step in that sequence – the visual expression and rendering of letters and words onto your screen – is the interesting specialism of my friend Hilary Kenna. Hilary is now blogging as part of her PhD research programme. You can read her musings, cogitations and insights about on-screen (and sometimes even off-screen) typography at Type4Screen.

In a world where the amount of on-screen content is multiplying exponentially this has got to be a fruitful area of research. Admittedly, this sort of topic is appealing for design-nerds like me, but I think it can be of interest to a broader audience as well.

Having not given this topic too much thought before, I am personally most interested in the area of text on mobile screens. Most of Thoughtport is written on my Palm PDA screen in twenty minute bursts and that device’s on-screen text representation is adequate for that task. But, after reading a few novels on my PDA, I have abandoned it as a tool for long-form commuter reading. (Whether that decision was a function of the quality of the on-screen glyphs and any attendant eye-strain. Or whether my decision was driven by the allure of the insistent podcasts one wheel-click away on my iPod menu. I have not decided yet.) In my experience the PDA is far more useful as a writing tool than as a reading tool.

I am taking it that it can surely only be a matter of time until somebody solves the challenges restraining the arrival of the ‘iPod Of Reading’. Delivering on the promise of that is really going to require a serious quality bump in the legibility of handheld screen text. Even today, reading The Economist’s editorial about the twenty-fifth anniversary of the PC reminded me that the modern mobile phone is a computer in all but name, and that is how the majority of the world’s population are receiving, transmitting and managing their data. That is the current situation, not in some notional future. Where PCs are not available, mobile tech is propagating wildly. Great swathes of the world’s people are just never going to be interested in sitting in front of a PC screen. Here in Ireland I think we are still more fond of our large screens. Yes I can read my Gmail on my Nokia mobile phone, and I have tried it once just to see how it works. But I am not going to do so regularly at this stage, because the on-screen experience simply is not adequate yet.

If I was researching and thinking about text on-screen in 2006 and after, I would be looking beyond the traditional canvas of the PC screen, I would be interested in how we are going to best read, say, locations on our in-car GPRS screens, or geo-tags on my mobile, or always-on realtime Bloglines feeds on my iRead and so forth. More seriously, beyond tech-nerd frivolity, mission-critical applications like air-traffic control screens, or bedside patient monitoring screens in hospitals do come to mind...

Whatever the technological platform, we are all soon going to be reading far more text on small screens, in daylight and in poor light and on the move. Of course type design will have to play a pivotal role in adding value to that experience. Exciting times lie ahead.

* I am excluding the myriad possible non-screen eventualities such as that you are either reading this on paper in the handsome leather-bound edition of ‘
The Complete Thoughtport: Volume One 2004–2021’ (as published in 2058) or that you are having it wired directly from ‘The Twenty-First Century Internet Archives’ into your brain via wetware implant in some far-flung future.

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